The word tafsir( pl. tafasir) is derived from the verb fassara, meaning to explain, open, unveil or discover something hidden. The emergence of the word tafsir as a technical term is unclear. It occurs once in the Koran (25:33) : "They do not bring to you any similitude, but what We bring to you (is) the truth and better in exposition (wa ahsana tafsiran)." In Islamic terminology, tafsir means an interpretation or commentary of the Koran. The tafsir is applied only to the external philological exegesis.
The tafsir includes the explanation of different Koranic words and phrases, including grammatical construction of the sentences and the reasons of revelation. It is a basic brick to introduce the Koranic verses with the help of related hadiths. It also determines whether a verse or passage belongs to the Meccan or Medinan period, whether it is muhkam or mutashabiha, abrogating or abrogated, and whether it has a general or specific reference or purport. It may also be characterized as the general elucidation of a verse with the view to discovering its exoteric meaning and application.
The Companions of the Prophet acquired knowledge of the Causes of Revelation of different verse from the Prophet, who stood to explain and interpreted the Koranic verses: "And We have sent down unto you the Message, that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought" (16:44). The best known sahaba or the Companions, who may aptly be described as scholars of tafsir were Abdullah bin Abbas (d. 68/687), Abdullah bin Masud (d. 32/653), Ubayy bin Ka'b (d. 20/640), Zaid bin Thabit (d. 45/665), Abdullah bin Zubayr (d. 73/692), etc. There were three main schools of Koranic commentary, which had developed by the end of the first half of the first century. The first was that of Mecca, whose master was Abdullah bin Abbas, and whose famous students were Sa'id bin Jubayr (d. 94/712), Mujahid bin Jabr al-Makki (d. 104/722), Ikrma (d. 105/723), Tawus bin Kaysan al-Yameni (d. 106/724) and Ata bin Abi Rabah (d. 114/732). The second school was that of Iraq, which recognized Ibn Masud as its master. It students were Alqama bin Qays (d. 102/720), Aswad bin Yazid (d. 75/694), Masruq bin al-Ajda (d. 63/682), Mara al-Hamdani (d. 76/695), Amir al-Sha'bi (d. 105/723), Hasan al-Basri (d. 121/738), Qatada al-Sadusi (d. 117/735) and Ibrahim al-Nakha'i (d. 195/713). Finally, there was the school of Medina, which was thickly populated by the Companions and scholars, the most famous being Ubayy bin Ka'b. His students were Abu al-Aliyah (d. 90/708), Muhammad bin Ka'b al-Qarzi (d. 117/735) and Zaid bin Aslam (d. 130/747).
The works of tafsir at this early stage included comments on more verses than before, and the tabi'un began to composed their commentaries. In the immediate period following, we find the following prominent scholars in the field of tafsir: Ismail al-Suddi (d. 128/745), al-Dahhak bin Muzahim (d. 105/723), al-Kalbi (d. 146/763), Muqatil bin Hayyan (d. before 150/767) and Muqatil bin Suleman (d. 150/767).
The famous scholars appeared in the period when the principle of the science of Islamic jurisprudence was established. Thus, the collection and compilation of the hadith evolved. Rules were formed to determine authenticity of the hadith, and these collections became reliable source in explaining the Koranic verses, and boosted the writing of the tafsir.
Early Sunni tafasir : Jami al-Bayan an-Tawil fi Tafsir al-Koran by Tabari (d. 310/922), Bahr al-Ulum by Abul Lyth al-Samarkandi (d. 373/983), Tafsir al-Thalabi by Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Thalabi al-Nisaburi (d. 383/993), Tanzih al-Koran by Qadi Abdul Jabbar (d. 415/1024), Kashf al-Bayn an-tafsir al-Koran by Abu Ishaq al-Thalbi (d. 427/1035), al-Muharrar al-Wajiz by Abul Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 450/1058), Asbab Nuzul al-Koran by Wahidi (d. 468/1076), Mufradate by Raghib (d. 503/1109), Tafsir al-Baghwi by Hasan bin Masud al-Baghwi (d. 510/1116), Al-Kashshaf an-Haqa'iq ghawamid at-Tanzil by Zamakhshari (d. 538/1144), Ahkam al-Koran by Muhammad bin Abdullah Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi (d. 543/1149), Kitab Zad al-masir fi'l ilm al-tafsir by Ibn Jawzi (d. 597/1201), at-Tafsir al-Kabir by Fakhruddin Razi (d. 606/1209), Tafsir al-Koran al-Karim by Ibn Arabi (638/1240), al-Jami li'Ahkam al-Koran by Qurtubi (d. 671/1273), Ruh al-ma'ani by Shihabuddin Muhammad al-Alusi al-Baghdadi (d. 669/1270), Anwar at-Tanzil wa-asrar at-tawil by Baidawi (d. 685/1286), Madrik al-tanzil wa haqa'iq al-tawil by Abul Barkat al-Nasafi (d. 710/1310), Ghara'ib al-Koran wa Ragha'ib al-Furqan by Nisaburi (d. 728/1327), Tafsir al-Koran al-Karim by Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373), Tafsir al-Jalalain by Jalauddin al-Mahalli (d. 864/1459), Itqan fi Ulum-il-Koran and Dhur-e-Manthur by Suyuti (d. 911/1505), etc.
Early Shi'ite tafsir : Rawh al-Jinan wa ruh al-Janan by Abu Futuh al-Razi, Shaikh Saduq (d. 381/991), Tibyan fi tafsir al-Koran by Abu Jafar al-Tusi (460/1067), al-Burhan fi'tafsir al-Koran by Burhani (1107/1696), Kashani (d. 776/1375), Majma al-Bayan lif'ulum al-Koran by Tabarsi (d. 548/1153), Tafsir al-Qummi by Qummi (d. 328/939), As-Safi fi tafsir al-Koran by Kashi (d. 1075/1505), etc.
Early Sufi tafsir : Tafsir al-Koran al-Azim by Sahal al-Tustari (d. 283/897), Haqa'iq al-tafsir by Abu Abd Rahman al-Sulami (d. 412/1021), Lata'if al-isharat by Abul Kassim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), Kash al-Asrar by Rashiduddin Maybudi (d. 520/1126), Ara'is al-Bayan by Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 606/1209), Ara'is al-Bayan fi haqa'iq al-Koran by Abu Mohammad Shirazi (d. 606/1209), al-Tawilat al-Najmiyah by Najamuddin Daya (d. 654/1261) and Ala al-Dawla Summani (d. 736/1330), etc.